Sermon: Embrace

Father, you promise that as the As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so it is with your word that goes forth from your mouth; it will not return to you empty, but will accomplish what you desire and achieve the purpose for which you sent it. We pray that this would be so this morning, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Genesis 33. Genesis is the first book in the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Genesis 33, beginning in verse 1. Since shortly after Easter, we have been listening closely to the story of Jacob. Jacob and his whole family have been far from perfect and they generally won’t get better. Yet, the LORD, out of pure grace, chose this family to be the instrument through which he would carry forward his work to deliver sinners (and indeed all creation) from the curse. While we are not at the end of Jacob’s story, we have reached the end of a long arc in Jacob’s life. Twenty years before our passage this morning, he left home just ahead of being murdered by his brother. And now, after a long and arduous journey, Jacob returns to his brother again. But what will happen when they see each other? Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.

But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down, and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand, for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.

Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way and I will go alongside you.” But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; and if they are overdriven for one day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the cattle that are before me, and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “Why should my lord be so kind to me?” So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and build himself a house, and made booths for his cattle, therefore the place is called Succoth.

Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-Aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for one hundred pieces of money the plot of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Have you ever been hearing a story and you just know where it is going to go? Even if the story itself is a little unique, it is so like so many other stories, that you know how it is going to end?

Olga and I like to watch crime dramas and murder mysteries. We have watched enough that I have gotten pretty good and predicting the twist before it happens. It is usually the person they overlooked early on in the investigation. There is just one small detail that comes up that fits all the pieces together and it was him all along. Maybe I think about this too much and should just enjoy the story.

But when you feel like you have heard a type of story before, you get a sense of what to expect. You feel like you know where it should be going.

When it comes to Jacob and Esau meeting for the first time in twenty years, what have we been led to expect going into this encounter? Jacob has the birthright Esau believes he deserves. Jacob has the blessing of Isaac that would have gone to Esau. Esau planned to kill Jacob once Isaac was dead, but Esau has never been known to be a man of patience. Jacob left one step ahead of Esau’s wrath, waiting for a word that his brother has forgotten his fury. But no word came.

We can tell what Jacob expects. Messengers have told him that Esau comes toward him at the head of a small army. Jacob divides everything he owns in half, expecting Esau to come and destroy something, but maybe Jacob can salvage something out of the situation. He sends a series of presents ahead of him, trying to turn away his brother’s anger.

Jacob expects bloody confrontation and has every right to. We know this story – an older brother murderously jealous of the blessing of his younger sibling, sin crouching at his door. We know how that story tends to end. The first time it happened, it ended with Abel’s blood splattered on the ground and crying out to God and Cain, his older brother, is cast out.

Jacob expects violence from Esau and we don’t blame him. This is how that story goes, not only in Scripture, but throughout our lives and throughout history. Jealously leads to rage and rage lead to violence. Instead of fading away, the grudge festers until it is far uglier than at the beginning. We know how this story ends, with Esau coming with four hundred men against Jacob. It ends in violence.

Jacob has struggled with everyone. With his brother, his father, his father-in-law, even God. In every struggle, Jacob has prevailed. He tricked his way into blessing, birthright, and prosperity, or so it seems, so the only way we expect Jacob to get out of this situation is one final swindle. One final deception that will give him ultimate victory of his brother.

In the midst of all the fear and planning, Jacob prays. He prayed for deliverance back in Genesis 32: And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’” Jacob prayed for deliverance. Even now as he makes those final steps toward his brother Esau, we find Jacob praying. He bows himself to the ground seven times – an act of prayer – praying that God will deliver him.

But what happens when the brothers meet? The violent showdown? The final struggle for Jacob? None of these. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. Peace, not violence. 

They embrace and weep. Everything we have seen up to this point about these two brothers and everything we know about the relationship of the two nations that come from them – Edom and Israel – does not lead us to expect this. Peace between the brothers.

God heard Jacob’s prayers. God delivered him from the hand of Esau by taming Esau’s heart. This is a special work of God, showing that God has the hearts of men in his hand, to soften, to harness, and to tame. God restrained Esau from doing harm to Jacob, even though that would have been his natural tendency (seen in the bringing of 400 men).

When Esau and Jacob meet for the first time in twenty years, we expect violence, but instead there is peace. All because God heard the prayers of Jacob. This peace is not about the character of Esau, but about the work of God in protecting Jacob.

Esau came armed with four hundred men. Esau came and we expect nothing but violence, for if you have been with us in walking through the life of Jacob, we have seen the wickedness of Esau. Esau came armed for violence, but Jacob came armed with prayer.

The hand of God is more powerful than all the weapons in the world. Jacob had plenty of moments in his life where it was clear that God was with him, but I imagine that seeing Esau run to embrace him would have been one of the most surprising. Genesis 33 is not the story we expected, but at its heart, it is a story of answered prayer and God’s deliverance.

When we see Jacob and Esau embracing, when we behold this surprising peace, we should be encouraged to perseverance in our own prayers. God can bring peace where there seems no way to be peace. God can change hearts that it seems there is no way can be changed. God can protect his own when all signs point to certain failure. God can change the ending that the world would expect. So keep praying, for you do not know what surprises God will bring in the story. Keep praying, because the LORD delights in deliverance. Keep praying, because Jacob came better armed with prayer to the conflict than Esau with all four hundred of his men.

But what now? Jacob has been delivered from the violence of Esau and they embrace and weep together. How does Jacob respond to this deliverance, to this answered prayer?

Jacob responds in three ways. First, he humbles himself. Every time Jacob talks to Esau, he calls him ‘my lord.’ When they finally meet, Jacob’s wives, maids, and children all come near to Esau and bow down. The whole family bows down to Esau. When Esau asks about all the presents Jacob had sent ahead and tries to refuse them, Jacob insists he take them, saying “if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand, for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.”

Why is Jacob so subservient to Esau? Why is he giving away his hard-earned possessions and calling his brother, ‘my lord,’ when the first prophecy we have spoken about Jacob and Esau is that Esau will be the one serving Jacob? What is going on?

Some suggest that Jacob is still afraid of Esau and is being cautious and trying to butter Esau up. However, I think something deeper is going on.

Jacob can humble himself because he considers all the honors and wealth of this world as nothing compared to the promise and blessing of God. Jacob has the birthright. He has the blessing. He has the promise of God given to him and signified in the a new name. He is now, Israel, defined by his relationship with God. As he says to Esau, “I have everything I want.” So what is a little honor or a little wealth?

Jacob can humble himself before Esau because he is secure in the LORD. Esau can have his money, he can have some of his flock, he can have whatever titles will make him feel better. Jacob has what truly matters. He belongs to the LORD.

When we know who we are and whose we are, when we are secure in our identity in Christ and our eternal destiny in him, then we are free to hold the stuff of this world loosely. Jacob can humble himself before Esau because nothing Esau can do will take away what God has given him. We, too, can humble ourselves, can give of our selves, our money, our time, even our honor and respect, because no one can take away what truly matters – that we belong to Jesus Christ. If we are in Christ, we can be secure enough to let go and humble ourselves.

Second, Jacob does not remain with Esau. We talked a few weeks ago about the dangers Jacob faced because he tarried in the house of Laban. He remained in the house of Laban and it transformed into twenty years of slavery. Esau offers a different, but similar relationship, but Jacob refuses. Esau wants to journey with Jacob. He wants to team up, to be partners. However, Jacob has now learned his lesson. He is grateful that God has delivered him from the hand of Esau, that the LORD brought peace where there could have been violence, but he will not remain any longer than he must in the company of Esau. Jacob rightly does not trust that Esau’s heart has truly changed, only that his worst desires have been restrained. Esau offers to travel together, but Jacob tells him he will need to move slower with the children and animals. True, but probably not Jacob’s only reason. When Esau offers to leave men behind with him, Jacob refuses again. Jacob will not partner with Esau, but must go his own way.

Unlike his time with Laban, Jacob does not even spend the night in Esau’s house. Instead, he travels to Succoth builds himself a house and booths for his cattle. Jacob is beginning to settle and take possession of the land God has given him, going so far as to buy a plot near the city of Shechem, but he will not stay in the house of Esau.

For us, when God protects us from the dangers of sin, we should make every effort to flee from it. When God hears our prayers and leads us not into temptation, we should not journey alongside of Esau or let his presence linger behind. Instead, we should go a different way and settle in the land, in the ways, that God has shown us.

Lastly, Jacob honors the LORD. He travels first to Succoth, which means booths, and he builds booths for his cattle there, hence the name. He then travels and camps outside the city of Shechem, which is in the promised land. We will talk more another time about Jacob’s stay near Shechem, but we should notice how this journey ends. Jacob buys a plot of land and then builds an altar. He names it El-Elohe-Israel, literally God, the God of Israel or, more likely, God is the God of Israel. Jacob worships.

Jacob’s response to God’s deliverance, to the answers to his prayers is to humble himself, flee from Esau, and to worship the LORD. In Christ, God has accomplished a much greater deliverance than he did between Jacob and Esau. He has not just tamed heart of Esau, but changed out hearts of stone for hearts of flesh. He has not only turned aside the violent man, but has made Jew and Gentile embrace, that we might become one people in Christ. The temporary reconciliation of Esau and Jacob points ahead to that greater and more permanent reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ. Yet, our response should be like Jacob’s. We should humble ourselves, holding loosely all that we have because what matters most has been secured by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. We should flee from sin in the same way that Jacob fled from Esau. And we should worship, should set apart time and space to magnify the name of the LORD who has redeemed us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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